The Challenge of Reading Biblical Wisdom
We’ve noted several times in our sermons on Colossians that bearing the fruit of the gospel means knowing God’s will “in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1.9). We’ve also noted Paul’s allusion to Lady Wisdom in the Christological hymn (Col 1.15-16; cf Pro 8.22-31). Much of Paul’s teaching over the rest of the epistle rests implicitly on wisdom, the quality of sound judgment.
The Bible has several books explicitly devoted to wisdom: Job, some of the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. The rest of the Bible, by and large, invites us to read it through the lens of wisdom, Colossians being but one example. So how do we read and understand biblical wisdom?
Wisdom will give us fits if we expect all of the Bible to read like Law. Law and Wisdom are consistent in their devotion to God and godliness—they are both the product of the same inspiration—but they differ drastically in their form and style. In this, Law and Wisdom are like water and food; both are needed to sustain the body, but they do so in different ways.
In my experience, most people—Christians included—think of the Faith in terms of Law: do this, don’t do that, and here are the consequences for disobedience. Things are ostensibly cut and dry. You either make a graven image, or you don’t. You either steal, or you don’t. You either go to heaven, or you go to hell. It’s reductionistic, to be sure, since the Law itself doesn’t invite our opinion that it is cut and dry; what, for example, does it mean to “honor your father and your mother”?
Wisdom utterly defies this checklist mentality. It invites us to exercise our judgment. It resists tidy, universal categories, famously telling us in one verse to “answer a fool according to his folly,” then telling us in the next verse not to do that. Wisdom tells us that we have to work to find the right answers in life; it’s not laid out neatly for us on a page somewhere. This is not to say that Wisdom preaches subjectivism—far from it. Instead, it tells us what we should know instinctively: it is hard to apply our principles to our lives, but we are expected to do it anyway. Wisdom is hard.
The worst part is that we will disagree over who is right. The entire book of Job is dedicated to that subject. Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu all basically agree on what is right. They all condemn oppression against the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. They all agree that God is the source of wisdom and justice. They differ over at least one fundamental thing, which we’ll get to, but their debate generally isn’t about what is right but about who is right. The wisdom of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar says that Job is being punished for wrongdoing. The wisdom of Job says that he has done nothing wrong, that he is being treated maliciously and capriciously. The wisdom of God, which concludes the book, says that the whole matter falls outside the realm of human judgment and that we’ll never know the answer!
To say the least, this frustrates some readers.
I said that Job and his friends disagree over one fundamental issue, and it’s a doozy: does the world make moral sense, or is it morally absurd? Are the wicked punished for their wickedness (the position of Job’s friends) or is the world so morally absurd that the wicked actually prosper on account of their wickedness (the position of Job)? God doesn’t resolve this question at the end of the book, nor does the rest of the Wisdom literature. The Proverbs generally agree with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: “The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand” (Pro 12.7). Ecclesiastes generally agrees with Job: “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten,” and “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (Ecc 2.16; 7.15).
On top of all of that, much of the Wisdom literature strikes us as fractured and disorganized. Pick any chapter of the Proverbs starting with chapter 10, and you will read a dizzying assortment of topics. The rest of the Wisdom literature is only slightly less eclectic. How does one get answers out of it all? You’d have to read the whole thing any time you wanted to understand what it teaches on any given topic.
I suspect this is a conscious choice on God’s part. To learn biblical wisdom about money, you have to read the rest of biblical wisdom as well. Want to know about family life? Get ready to read about speech, work ethic, kingly leadership, and justice as well. There is a divine method to this madness. Research a few topics from the Wisdom literature, and you’ll start to get the sense that all of it is tied together in some broader sense that defies strict logic. It’s exhausting, but, after all, Wisdom is hard.